The lesson of Joe Biden’s presidency? Charisma and eloquence are overrated

Janan Ganesh: The occupant of the White House has done more in one term than such silver-tongues as Bill Clinton managed in two

Joe Biden was an average-to-poor communicator even before his age-related deterioration. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

There are three things that Joe Biden cannot shake off: his Secret Service guards, his own shadow and the phrase “...since Lyndon Johnson”. He is described as the most consequential Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson. He is said to have brought about the largest expansion of the federal government since Lyndon Johnson. The historical comparison is meant well. In fact, it undersells him.

In turning ideas into statute, LBJ had lavish advantages. Democrats outnumbered Republicans around two-to-one in both houses of Congress for much of the 1960s. Having replaced the slain John F Kennedy, he began with the nation’s goodwill, and could present his reforms as his predecessor’s unfinished work. Biden had neither the numbers nor the moral head-start. Still, last week, the Ukraine aid package joined the American Rescue Plan, the Inflation Reduction Act and a vast infrastructure splurge in Biden’s canon of important (or at least expensive) laws.

What are we to learn from this prolific doer of things? What, as we near its end, is the lesson of this startlingly fertile presidential term?

One thing above all: eloquence is overrated. So is charisma, vision-setting and all the other “performance” aspects of politics. Biden was an average-to-poor communicator even before his age-related deterioration. He has no signature speech or even epigram to show for half a century in frontline politics. What he does have is more inside experience of Washington – its details, its unwritten codes – than any president ever. The result is a one-term legacy that exceeds what such silver-tongues as Bill Clinton managed in two.


The haggling over Ukraine was instructive. For weeks, Biden applied private pressure on Mike Johnson, the House speaker, showing him intelligence briefings but never badgering him in front of voters or Republican colleagues. Biden understood, as his more outwardly gifted predecessors didn’t always, the importance of face. Something else, too: he can count.

A leader can’t be so presentationally inept as to be unelectable. But once that low standard is met, there are diminishing returns to star power. Britain’s two greatest postwar leaders were the taciturn Clement Attlee and the plodding communicator Margaret Thatcher. (Much of her charisma has been ascribed to her in retrospect.) Their nation-changing qualities – stamina, focus, certitude – were in the private side of politics, which is most of politics.

Liberals need to hear this more than most. American ones in particular can be crashing snobs about education and speech. In The West Wing, they got to create their ideal president. The result? A hyper-articulate Yankee Brahmin. Similarly, it took decades to correct the overvaluation of Kennedy, with his polish and fluency, as against Johnson. (Camelot. What a tellingly aristocratic metaphor.)

But the ultimate beneficiary of this liberal obsession with rhetoric was Barack Obama. It wasn’t even profound rhetoric. “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” What? In no other country can the son of an African immigrant become a provincial lawmaker? (Obama was an Illinois senator when he said it.) This is nice-sounding hokum. But it was enough to blind people to the faults of an administration that is now undergoing a downward revision. Biden is to Obama what Johnson was to Kennedy.

In the distant past, when the state did little outside of war, inspiring people was the core task of leadership. Hence the study of rhetoric in classical education. Once government took a welfare and economic role, the mechanics of lawmaking mattered more. But the perception of what constitutes a leader never caught up. Because people overvalue what they themselves are good at, the educated politico-media class overvalues eloquence.

I say all this as no particular admirer of Biden’s domestic bills. If he loses re-election, the culprit will be inflation, to which his spending has probably contributed. His protectionism almost guarantees immense waste and fragments the world trade order that allowed the postwar US to bind countries to it. What now is its offer to nations gravitating into China’s orbit? And while Johnson’s work lasted – God help the politician who touches Medicare – Biden’s might not. The US debt position won’t allow for endless further subsidies.

Still, there are other moments to discuss how Biden uses his political skill. Just recognise that skill, and how little it relies on words. If a “great” leader is one who changes things, for better or not, this is an administration of mumbling, tongue-tied greatness. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024